Jealous murder strikes a John Wayne movie set.
This Master Detective published today in 1960 has a nice cover by Al Drule, and inside the issue are several interesting stories, but the one we're looking at today is “The Crime that Wasn't in the Script,” about a murder that took place during the filming of John Wayne's western The Alamo. The story is kind of forgotten, but basically, an actress named LaJean Etheridge was killed by her boyfriend Chester Harvey Smith, who was angry that Etheridge had decided to move closer to the movie set in Brackettville, Texas. Such a killing is impossible to understand under any circumstances, but putting on your jealous madman cap for a second you can picture a possessive man losing it over his girlfriend moving thousands of miles away. Like if someone told you the story you'd nod and go, “Umm hmm,” because you could see it.
But Etheridge wasn't moving thousands of miles. She and Smith had both scored work as extras on The Alamo, had traveled from Hollywood together, and were living in Spofford, Texas with three other extras in lodgings set up by Wayne's Batjac Productions. Etheridge had decided to move from Spofford to Fort Clark, ten miles north, a relocation precipitated by her landing a larger part in the film. Was she simply moving closer to the set to facilitate the changed demands of her role? Or was she leaving her boyfriend? Still wearing your jealous madman cap, you can picture Smith believing the latter. Etheridge would be out of sight, living with unknowns, possibly having fun with production staff and carousing with handsome actors. But she never got the chance—as she was packing Smith stabbed her in the chest with a Bowie knife, and she died on the scene. He was arrested when police arrived fifteen minutes later, pled guilty to murder, and was sentenced to thirty years in prison.
The final assessment by Smith's lawyer was that the murder was a crime of “passion and professional jealousy.” As details emerged a clearer picture of Smith formed. He had once struck his ex-wife's roommate in the head with a hatchet, and earlier had tried to run her, her roommate, and their dates down with his car. His rage wasn't reserved only for ex-lovers. He also once attacked a bus driver. So Smith needed no excuses to hurt people. It's just what he did. But maybe this particular episode really was a so-called crime of passion. Rumors circulated during the trial that Etheridge had been seeing John Wayne, but he never testified nor was officially involved with the case in any way. And under the circumstances, it was probably inevitable that such rumors would spring up. Yet Etheridge had completed her part, and Wayne, according to several accounts, had asked her to stay on at Fort Clark. So there's no telling.
Etheridge's part in The Alamo was left on the cutting room floor. No surprise. The murder caused enough bad publicity as it was, so naturally there was no way she could have remained in the film. It wasn't until an extended version was released in 1993 that her role as Mrs. Guy was seen by movie fans. Though the story of the murder hasfaded somewhat, author John Hegenberger used the events as the backdrop for a 2017 crime novel called Stormfall. Chester Harvey Smith, John Wayne, and others are characters, and the star is Hegenberger's detective creation Stan Wade. The book opens with the murder, and Etheridge uttering her final words to Smith before she dies. What were the words? According to the statement Smith gave police, Etheridge said, mortally wounded and bleeding to death, “I love you.” You can take off your jealous madman cap now.
Wherever celebrities misbehave National Spotlite is on the scene.
This National Spotlite published today in 1968 features cover star Naemi Priegel, a West German television actress and singer who reached the height of her fame during the 1970s. Inside are many interesting Hollywood tidbits, including former child star Hayley Mills allegedly describing herself as a tigress in bed, Marlon Brando beating up two party crashers, Elvis Presley breaking the arm of someone to whom he was demonstrating a karate hold, Richard Burton being pursued by a chorus girl who claimed he fathered her child, Gene Tierney and her husband Howard Lee getting into a public spat, and John Wayne slugging an autograph seeker who mistook him for Robert Mitchum. Was any of this stuff true? We have no idea, but it sure is interesting reading. You can see more in the same vein at our tabloid index, located at this link.
This is loaded, so answer this next question carefully. Who's the star of this movie?
Jean Arthur, née Gladys Georgianna Greene poses for a promo photo made when she was filming the romantic comedy A Lady Takes a Chance with John Wayne. Arthur was a very big star who began in silent cinema, made the transition to talkies, and reached the height of her fame in her mid-thirties. She was billed above Wayne for Lady, and he was a huge star himself. Some of Arthur's other efforts include Shane and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The photo above dates from 1943, and A Lady Takes a Chance premiered in the U.S. today that same year.
Sex and cinema in an open age.
When we went to Paris a couple of months ago we mentioned that we found a stack of Ciné-Revue magazines in Le Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen. Their dimensions make for extra work because we have to scan every page in two pieces and put them together in Photoshop, and even more daunting, any two-page spreads have to be scanned in four pieces and assembled (this is actually true for all the tabloids we post). That’s why we get a bit lazy about it sometimes. Yeah, yeah, we know—get a bigger scanner. Easier said than done, unless someone wants to mail us one. Anyway, we managed to get some pages together from the above issue of Ciné-Revue published today in 1973.
Ciné-Revue originated out of Belgium in 1944 and was the premiere French-language cinema magazine there and in France for many years. Today it remains popular, making it one of the longest-lived cinema magazines as well. On the cover of this one you get German softcore and hardcore actress Karin Schubert, and inside you get John Wayne, Pia Giancaro, Brigitte Bardot, Jean Gabin, and an artful nude shot of impossibly handsome Austrian actor Helmut Berger. You’re welcome, girls, but please don’t start doing internet searches trying to find out what he looks like now—you won’t be happy. Berger also appears on the back of the mag.
Regarding the Schubert cover, the line between mainstream cinema and porn was never blurrier than back then, and Ciné-Revue reflected that with its features of hardcore and softcore performers. Could you imagine such actresses routinely appearing in, say, Rolling Stone, and being given equal standing with mainstreamers? Nevertheless, popular American media is heavily porn-influenced, even if the seed, so to speak, goes unacknowledged. What is a Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue about, for example, with its models wearing not swimsuits, but rather paint on their fully waxed bodies?
When cinema first developed into an industry many filmmakers thought of movies as simply a motile version of photography, or painting, or sculpture. Nudity was a regular occurrence onscreen during the pre-code 1920s, but a funny thing happens when you add motion and character development to the static nude—Michelangelo turns into Brazzers. Today, all nudity in American cinema is on some level political. No? Then why is it that only in American cinema there is such a proclivity for the clothed sex scene? It raises a question. Is it possible for both men and women, gay and straight, to celebrate their sexuality without conflict? Maybe, but only with more economic equality for women, less stigmitization of homosexuality, less racism, and more understanding that we are—male and female, gay and straight, green and purple—biologically driven by sexual desire.
Looking at the Schubert image above, we’re reminded of a time (in which we were basically zygotes, but go with us here) during which mainstream movies asked questions about freedom for versus exploitation of women, and how commerce in an age of mass media impacts women’s security versus the ideal of sexual freedom. For instance, how do we have sex and sexual aspiration but also have a safe pressure release for the millions who aren’t having sex in any given week or year? Can sex and porn safely co-exist? No idea. Option two is to beat the need for sex out of every man and woman on the planet. Not our preferred solution, but we can talk about it. Why did we write all this? Probably because there’s nudity/exploitation in the next two posts, so these questions just came into our minds.
On another note, we had to go back to France on short notice, but to Bordeaux this time, and we’re there at this moment. So maybe hanging out with the always philosophical French made us write this missive. Possibly some fine red wine has contributed. Anyway, we will scour Bordeaux for more wine—er, pulp—but especially Ciné-Revue, as we’re very interested in 1970s international movie stars, and this magazine gave them as much exposure as any publication we’ve seen. We have eighteen scans below, and more from Ciné-Revue to come.
All celebrities great and small.
We’ve featured Pic magazine only once before, but not because it was an unimportant publication. Quite the opposite—we’ve seen issues as early as 1936 and as late as 1958, making it both a Depression and World War II survivor, presumably no easy feat and certainly a run indicative of sustained popularity. Early issues seemed focused on sports, but it soon broadened to include celebrities. It was launched by Wagner Publications of New York City, and this issue appeared in June 1952 with a cover featuring actress Suzan Ball placing a crown on the head of Akton Miller, a man Pic had chosen as its Hot Rod King. Inside you get a raft of Hollywood stars, including photos of Yvonne De Carlo in Uruguay, Marilyn Monroe, Janet Leigh, and Joan Vohs, shots of New York Giants manager Leo Durocher and his beautiful actress wife Laraine Day, and some nice boxing pictures. There’s also an interesting feature on the day’s top vocalists (with African-Americans notably excluded), and a profile of crooner Tony Bennett.
But it’s Suzan Ball’s story we’re interested in today. Her path to show business was so typical of the period as to be almost banal—she was spotted in a Santa Maria, California newspaper after winning a cake baking contest. Universal-International scouts thought she looked a bit like Jane Russell, so they swept her up, shuttled her down Highway 101, signed her to a contract and began selling her as a hot new Tinseltown commodity, proclaiming her the New Cinderella Girl of ’52. Soon the influential columnist Hedda Hopper took up the refrain, naming her one of the most important new stars of 1953, thus ensuring that year would belong to Ball.
It was then that her train to stardom jumped the tracks. She injured her leg performing a dance number in East of Sumatra, and later in the year had a car accident and hurt the leg again. Treatment for those two injuries led to the discovery of a cancerous tumor. Soon afterward she fell and broke the limb, and when doctors decided they couldn’t remove the tumor they instead took the entire the leg. That was in January 1954. Ball soldiered on in her show business career with an artificial leg, starring in Chief Crazy Horse, though she lost fifteen pounds during the production, and later playing nightclub dates and appearing on television shows. In July 1955 she collapsed while rehearsing for the show Climax, whereupon doctors discovered the cancer had metastasized and spread to her lungs. A month later she died at age twenty-one. We have about fifty scans below.
Another tabloid comes and goes.
Here’s another new tabloid for our ever-expanding collection, the mid-tier Suppressed. So far, we’ve seen issues only from 1954 through 1956, so we can safely assume it didn’t last long. It isn’t for lack of effort, though. The layouts are interesting and designers even splash self-promoting logos throughout the mag, but all for naught, apparently. In this particular issue, published in March 1955, we learn about the Topping family, whose patriarch Dan Topping was part owner and president of the New York Yankees from 1945 to 1964. We get profiles of Mara English, Robert Taylor, and a story about John Wayne and his three marriages. And we learn that there were two sides to segregation. Silly us, we thought the two sides were the right one and the wrong one, but Suppressed schools us in all the sociological nuances of state-sponsored apartheid. What a treat! More Suppressed later.
I've seen the bottle and the damage done.
Above we have a copy of the tabloid magazine Behind the Scene from this month 1957, with cover stars John Wayne, Elvis and Yul Brynner. The shocking tales about Brynner have mainly to do with his claims of being a real life man of action, born on the Russian island of Sakhalin to Mongol ancestors. The truth was more mundane, but the lies helped Brynner establish himself as a star, so it’s hard to fault his tactics. As far as Elvis goes, he was dogged by rumors of Mafia ties later in his career, but this mention of a connection as far back as 1957 was a surprise to us. As always, people on both sides of the issue are willing to shout their version of the facts to the mountaintops, but nobody really knows who’s telling the truth. We’ll check with Elvis himself on this, since he lives just over in the next town, and has since faking his own death in 1977.
The interesting story here is the one about Gail Russell and John Wayne. Their acquaintanceship began when they starred in Angel and the Badman together in 1947, and continued when they reunited for Wake of the Red Witch in 1949. Whether they were more than just friends, nobody really knows. At the time Wayne was married to Esperanza Baur Díaz, and the relationship was marred by drinking and fighting, including one incident when Baur shot at Wayne. When the time inevitably came for them to divorce, it turned into one of the nastiest splits in years, with Bauraccusing Wayne of being a violent drunk who beat her and fucked around with various women, including Russell, and Wayne accusing Baur of hanging around sleazy dive bars in Mexico, hooking up with strange men, and spending his money to entertain them.
The divorce was in 1953, but Behind the Scene, with this cover, is offering its readership dirt from an event that was still fresh in the public’s minds because it had been such a knock-down-drag-out spectacle. Russell had never weathered the limelight well, and she used booze to cope. Her long term drinking problem was exacerbated by the turbulence surrounding the Wayne-Baur split. Two weeks after the divorce she was arrested for drunk driving. It caused Paramount to decline renewing her contract, and she kind of floated around for a few years, trying to hook on with a new studio but drinking steadily all the while. In 1955 she rear-ended another car and fled the scene, and in early 1957 she drove her car though the plate glass windows of Jan’s Restaurant in Hollywood. You see the aftermath above.
With hindsight, it’s clear Russell was in a death spiral, but in the Tinseltown of that day the situation was perhaps not so obvious. In August 1957, Russell was found unconscious in her home, passed out after a drinking binge. Even in Hollywood, she had now crossed the line from being merely a party girl to having a problem. She was persuaded to join AA, but it was too late—she couldn't stop drinking, and in August 1961 was found in her L.A. apartment, having died from liver damage, aged 36. Russell once said of herself: “I was a sad character. I was sad because of myself. I didn’t have any self-confidence. I didn’t believe I had any talent. I didn’t know how to have fun. I was afraid. I don’t exactly know of what—of life, I guess.” So it seems she knew what her problem was, but was powerless to conquer it, and in the end, became just another beautiful star that flamed out. |
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
2011—Elizabeth Taylor Dies
American actress Elizabeth Taylor, whose career began at age 12 when she starred in National Velvet
, and who would eventually be nominated for five Academy Awards as best actress and win for Butterfield 8
and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
of congestive heart failure in Los Angeles. During her life she had been hospitalized more than 70 times.
1963—Profumo Denies Affair
In England, the Secretary of State for War, John Profumo, denies any impropriety with showgirl Christine Keeler and threatens to sue anyone repeating the allegations. The accusations involve not just infidelity, but the possibility acquaintances of Keeler might be trying to ply Profumo for nuclear secrets. In June, Profumo finally resigns from the government after confessing his sexual involvement with Keeler
and admitting he lied to parliament.
1978—Karl Wallenda Falls to His Death
World famous German daredevil and high-wire walker Karl Wallenda, founder of the acrobatic troupe The Flying Wallendas, falls to his death attempting to walk on a cable strung between the two towers of the Condado Plaza Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Wallenda is seventy-three years old at the time, but it is a 30 mph wind, rather than age, that is generally blamed for sending him from the wire.
2006—Swedish Spy Stig Wennerstrom Dies
Swedish air force colonel Stig Wennerström, who had been convicted in the 1970s of passing Swedish, U.S. and NATO secrets to the Soviet Union over the course of fifteen years, dies in an old age home at the age of ninety-nine. The Wennerström affair, as some called it, was at the time one of the biggest scandals
of the Cold War.
The federal penitentiary located on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay closes. The island had been home to a lighthouse, a military fortification, and a military prison over the years. In 1972, it would become a national recreation area open to tourists, and it would receive national landmark designations in 1976 and 1986.
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