Thursday, February 25, 2010

Film Makers 2

Harry Pebbel

He might have become a very good actor, or even a diplomat, but Harry Pebbel went to work for Hugo Shields at Shields Pictures at an early age. Hollywood became his calling. He had a long and successful career, both influencing, and being influenced by, Jonathan Shields, the son of Hugo, and founder of Shields Productions.

There was not an overabundance of nice guys in the golden age of that town, but Harry Pebbel certainly seemed to be one. His avuncular nature would appeal to younger players, and his sincere flattering manner would appeal to egos on the rise. Studio bosses would admire his film savvy and devotion to the bottom line. He was the perfect Hollywood cocktail.

Harry Pebbel was a moviemaker in the old tradition: a reliable producer for prestigious studios. After he left Shields Pictures, he moved to a rival studio and rose to the level of executive producer, responsible for as many as 18 pictures a year. But the shadow of Jonathan Shields cast intrusively over the accommodating Mr. Pebbel.

Harry often played cards at night as was the wont of Hollywood moguls. One such game put Jonathan Shields in debt to Harry, then into his employ and ultimately into a successful film career. After the triumph of The Faraway Mountain, Shields left Harry’s studio, but shortly thereafter Harry joined him at Shields Productions.

So started Pebbel’s second career with a man named Shields. Harry shared in the accolades and successes of the films with “The Shields Touch” but also in the failure of The Proud Land, Shields’s monumental (and tragic) flop. Its costly demise took a financial toll on Shields’s inner circle and Harry was no exception.

In his later years, his efforts to reunite the talent of Shields, with those of Fred Amiel, Georgia Lorrison, and James Lee Bartlow became a tale told among those supposedly in the know. The outcome of his efforts is too well known to recount here.

Harry Pebbel. One of the men behind the legendary Jonathan Shields. If Harry had ink in his blood it was probably black -- and I hope -- his life ended with a kiss.

Postscript: A rumored autobiography, Spear Carrier for the Shields, was never published.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Monday, February 22, 2010

The View from Afar 4

“The day the Hindenburg burst into flames while trying to dock in New Jersey, we heard it over the radio in the dressing room. The announcer broke down trying to describe the disaster. He was sobbing. My mother was jubilant: ‘You see? Remember how I wouldn’t let us take it? Even when Papi sad we should? It must have been sabotage! Very good! Now the Nazis have to spend money to build another Zeppelin that nobody will go on because they will be too frightened after this!’ ”

Maria Riva in Marlene Dietrich by her daughter Maria Riva … page 435
(During the filming of Ernst Lubitsch’s Angel)

Saturday, February 20, 2010

My Film Career (Offstage)

June 26, 1959


When I was a young soldier in the United States Army, I was stationed in Germany in 1958 and 1959. In the summer of 1959, I took a ten day leave to London. Being a tourist, and an incurable Anglophile, I gravitated to the river Thames. South of the river, probably in Southwark, I happened across a camera crew shooting a scene for a film. I was told the film was to be called Jazz Boat. Anthony Newley was the star.

I believe I appeared in one scene. The crew was shooting a group of revelers ascending a gangway onto a Thames craft. I was in a crowd of onlookers -- on the left side when facing the boat, and would be easy to locate because I was in uniform. Of course, the scene I was in likely found its way to the cutting room floor. But even if cut, perhaps I was once seen in the rushes. And most of us know David Mamet’s comment that even Moses looked good in the rushes.

Jazz Boat. My brilliant career.

Postscript: I have sought a television showing, a video or a DVD of Jazz Boat for years – to no avail.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Like Unto 3

Helen Walker

Jean Rogers

Suggested by Enola Stewart

Intelligent, comely women with husky voices. Less known than Helen, Jean was interesting in The War Against Mrs. Hadley, playing with a splendid group: Fay Bainter, Spring Byington, Connie Gilchrist, and Sara Allgood, among others.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The View from the Street 9

"Before I looked into the case of Ambrose Small, I was attracted to it by another seeming coincidence. That there could be any meaning in it seemed so preposterous that, as influenced by much experience, I gave it serious thought. About six years before the disappearance of Ambrose Small, Ambrose Bierce had disappeared. Newspapers all over the world had made much of the mystery of Ambrose Bierce. But what could the disappearance of one Ambrose, in Texas, have to do with the disappearance of another Ambrose in Canada? Was somebody collecting Ambroses?"

... The Books of Charles Fort

Friday, February 12, 2010

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Mirror Images 14

Marilyn Pauline Novak, working as Kim Novak, playing Judy Barton, impersonating Madeleine Elster (also known as Mrs. Gavin Elster), pretending to be Carlotta Valdes, while looking at a portrait of Carlotta Valdes. Unseen, but watching, is John Ferguson -- his old friends call him John, but his acquaintances call him Scottie. (With a mirror image of the same.)

(The idea is from Rachel Crane in 2001)

Mirror Images 13

All images are not as they seem.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The View from the Street 8

They go up and they go down, but they do not stop at the floor where we wait for them -- an elevator trait to which we are accustomed. They keep moving: up and down. And one enters a compartment and alights from it while the elevator is in motion. They have no doors. They are Paternoster elevators.

I first met a Paternoster elevator in the IG Farben Building in Frankfurt am Main in 1958. I was a soldier who took a trolley there from Gibbs Kaserne. (There is a bit of back story there, but that is a tale best told elsewhere.) I entered the building, walked to an elevator bank, saw what appeared to be moving walls, and entered a compartment while it was in motion. It rose to the floor where I was to attend a class. I alighted, of course, also while the compartment was in motion. I thought the elevator intriguing and I still do. But elevators that did not stop at the floor at which I waited were most unusual.

Enter Berlin Express, a good film by Jacques Tourneur. It was shot on location in Germany shortly after the war. Its title to the contrary notwithstanding, a part of the film takes place in Frankfurt. A group of mixed nationals on official business is investigating some postwar issue. Some of what happens occurs on a train but the group moves on to Frankfurt, to Allied headquarters at the IG Farben Building. They are guided to an elevator bank and a military policeman gestures them on to a Paternoster elevator. First Merle Oberon, then as she ascends in view, Robert Ryan and another. A cut shows them alight on some floor above.

A film directed by Jacques Tourneur is always worth watching. Robert Ryan invariably turns in a fine performance and the supporting cast is decent. The location shooting is on a par with Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair. But that film had Marlene Dietrich and Jean Arthur -- and all the Kordas in the kingdom, or all the Paternoster elevators in the land, could not raise the good Ms. Oberon to those heights. But the plot of Berlin Express is no more important to me than the plot of an Astaire/Rogers film. I watch it for the elevators and take the Berlin Express in a mood of reverie down to the Frankfurt of yesterday.

I have watched the film with some regularity over the years because it shows a Frankfurt that was close to that which I remember: the trolleys, the populace with missing limbs, the multiplicity of bicycles and especially -- the elevators that went up and down and did not stop at the floor at which I was waiting. Paternoster elevators. An endangered species in these times. But we will always have them in Jacques Tourneur's Berlin Express.

Postscript: I would like to hear of other instances in which Paternoster elevators are shown in film. And a quick glimpse of the elevator scene in Berlin Express can be seen at:

The View from Afar 3

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Like Unto 1

Mildred Natwick

Mildred Dunnock

Friday, February 5, 2010

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Words and Images 18

Suggested by Enola Stewart

Monday, February 1, 2010

Off the Lot 1

Appointment in Samarra

Death speaks:

There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the market-place I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture; now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me.

The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the market-place and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.

... W. Somerset Maugham. "The Appointment in Samarra"

Note: Later used by John O’Hara in the opening of his first novel.