They say even bad publicity is good publicity.
In this March 1957 issue of the tabloid Behind the Scene editors take swipes at assorted Hollywood icons, among them Yul Brenner, John Wayne, and others. Highlights include the allegation that Elvis Presley's career is mob controlled, that camera clubs are just fronts for porn peddlers, that Hedy Lamarr used Linda Lombard as a body double for Samson & Delilah, and that Lucrezia Borgia is the sexiest movie ever made. Also Mamie Van Doren's “secret weapon” is that anywhere she goes she always wears the least clothing of any woman present.
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. 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 since faking his 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 divorce inevitably came, it turned into one of the nastiest splits in years, with Baur accusing 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 crashed her car and fled the scene, and in early 1957 she drove though the plate glass windows of Jan’s Restaurant in Hollywood.
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 couldn't stop drinking, and in August 1961 was found in her L.A. apartment, having died from liver damage, aged 36, another beautiful star that flamed out. All that and more, in thirty-plus scans below.
Geez, everyone's a damn critic. I mean, look around. I play the blues for a reason.
Chicago based author William Attaway's Blood on the Forge is another of those highly serious literary novels that got the good-girl-art cover treatment. Numerous previously published authors were repackaged in this way during the 1950s. We're talking everyone from George Orwell to Aristarchus of Samos. This Popular Library edition is from the heyday of the makeover era—1953—but the book first appeared in 1941. It's about African American sharecroppers during the early twentieth century leaving their agrarian existence in Kentucky and heading to West Virginia, where they seek better lives and something closer to equality (the rear cover says Pennsylvania, but that happens much later in the story). This era is known historically as the Great Migration, when a lot of blacks got the hell out of the South and the increasingly vicious Jim Crow culture that thrived after slavery. The characters in Blood on the Forge find, like most real life migrants did, that the North is also unfair and difficult.
The cover art isn't as much of a stretch as it often is with these pulped up versions. The guitar player is Melody Moss, a major character, and the woman is Anna, who in the narrative is a Mexican girl of fourteen, but is depicted as well above the age of consent here. It's a pretty nice piece of art, though by an unknown (Ray Johnson? Owen Kampen?). As for the actual fiction, it was neglected for decades but it's now considered a literary classic and Attaway is recognized as an important figure of the Black Chicago Renaissance. Fitting, because Attaway was a real Renaissance man. He stopped writing novels after Blood on the Forge and moved into music and writing screenplays for radio, films, and TV. In 1957 he published the Calypso Song Book, a compendium of tunes he had collected. He also wrote for Harry Belafonte, including the classic "Banana Boat Song (Day O).” By the end of his career he had penned over 500 songs. You have to be impressed.
When your number is up it's up.
Dial 1119 is a simple film noir with a similar set-up as 1948's Key Largo—i.e. a criminal holds a barful of people hostage. This particular bar, called the Oasis, is in the fictional metropolis Terminal City. While the movie is simple it isn't one-note. We meet each of the characters earlier in the day, before they've gone to the Oasis to be terrorized, and they're an interesting mix—a newspaperman, a barfly, a cheating wife, an expectant father, and more. The man who holds them is a full-blown psychopath, a conscienceless killer, and the main plot question is whether he'll make Terminal City literal for the entire group by simply exterminating them all. Sure looks like it most of the time. This is a tidy flick, satisfying like a snack rather than a meal, well worth consuming. As a side note, you may find it interesting that the Oasis has the world's first wall mounted flatscreen television. It isn't real—the filmmakers bring it to life with projection fx. But we love that they even thought of it. Dial 1119 premiered in the U.S. today in 1950.
I am happy. You wanna see mad? Keep telling me to cheer up.
Charles Williams wrote more than twenty novels, and though the ones we've read have been good to serviceable, we were expecting eventually to come across an absolute winner. Hell Hath No Fury is that book. It was Williams' fourth novel, written in 1953, and features a tough drifter who becomes a used car salesman in a brokedick country town where he happens to notice bank security is lax. But robbing the bank is the mere entry point to all the problems he encounters. There's also a one-woman nightmare of a femme fatale, a shockingly adept sheriff, a filthy blackmailer, an irascible boss, and a sweet local beauty ripe for love. Williams uses the best line in the book on her:
I took her face in my hands and kissed her. And then they dynamited the dam.
There's no dam. That's just what the kiss does to him. And it's a brilliant pulp moment. A book like this screams for film adaptation, and it was eventually put onscreen in the form of 1990's The Hot Spot, with Don Johnson, Virginia Madsen, and a radiant Jennifer Connelly. We haven't watched the film, but it's on the slate. The only flaw to the book, besides the usual stuff general to 1950s crime fiction, is the title. The main character Harry Madox thinks he's rid himself of the femme fatale Dorothy Harshaw, but hell hath no fury. Those four words tell us she'll be back plenty mad and will have a say in how matters conclude. It takes a little of the suspense away. Otherwise, top notch.
Worse comes to worst in a dusty western town.
We told you the film was on the slate. When we noticed its premier date was right around the corner we watched it immediately after finishing Hell Hath No Fury. First order of business—the poster and tagline are terrible. It shows how easy it can be for a studio to screw up both. The text tells you The Hot Spot is a film noir, but the triptych style art provides no compelling imagery. Worse, you don't see Don Johnson clearly, though as a huge television star thanks to Miami Vice he was the movie's greatest asset. And you don't see Jennifer Connelly at all, who even back then was one of Hollywood's most beautiful women. Posters are seen before they're read, and the visuals here give no reason to examine further. We grade it a major fail.
But what of the film? Well, it got generally good reviews, but the public never turned up to see it. Johnson is nicely cast as the drifter/grifter Harry Madox, so he isn't to blame. Jennifer Connelly and Virginia Madsen were less known, but as supporting characters they more than did their part. Other modern noirs had performed well in cinemas, so it's not the style of The Hot Spot that hurt it. The direction from Dennis Hopper sticks reasonably close to the novel, and he gets the overheated small town atmosphere right, so we'll give him a pass too. Most likely the studio simply didn't make an effective push behind the movie—a theory backed up by the bad poster.
But The Hot Spot holds up well these years later. Some might find Madsen's honeydripping femme fatale improbable, but she's channelling both the source material and classic noirs. Other viewers probably doubted a nineteen-year-old Connelly could develop feelings for a Johnson on the far side of forty, but it happens. People who doubt that just haven't spent enough time in the real world. In the film the age difference does not go unaddressed. Johnson's feelings for his inappropriate crush prompt him to act against his best interests. Whether he pays a price hangs less on his cunning than on chance. Or perhaps it hangs on someone else's cunning—that's where the best femmes fatales always come in. The Hot Spot premiered in the U.S. today in 1990.
Sex Stars System uncovers erotic cinema around the world.
Here's a little treat for Monday, because Mondays are universally acknowledged to suck. Above is the cover and below are a ton of scans from the cutting edge cinema magazine Sex Stars System, which billed itself as “Le Magazine du Cinema Erotique.” It was published out of 55 Passage Jouffroy, in Paris, France, and for a while it was the top magazine with reviews and features on the new, sexually liberated mainstream cinema of the early 1970s, and the new pornography of the same era. Because porn was taken seriously as an art form back then (hard to imagine, we know) certain magazines discussed and critiqued the films and regarded the performers as equal with those in mainstream cinema. We talked about this phenomenon with Cine-Revue a few years ago. Sex Stars System was similar, but much edgier, as you'll see.
On the cover and in the centerfold you see Croatian born star Sylva Koscina (a mainstream actress), and elsewhere you get Emmanuelle Parèze (porn), Dany Carrel (mainstream), Valérie Bosigel (mainstream), Karin Schubert (both), Catherine Spaak (mainstream), Ornella Muti (mainstream), Chesty Morgan (porn, obviously), Marilyn Monroe (mainstream, though some scam artists claim she was the other too), et al. They don't make magazines like this anymore, because they don't make cinema like this anymore. Sex in U.S. movies is strictly taboo, unless, generally speaking, the actors keep their clothes on. You do see it on cable television, however, though such shows generate reams of online criticism about how terribly wrong it is (we agree, however, that more sex and nude scenes need to be filmed from the vantage point of the female gaze). In Europe, as always, things are a bit more liberated.
We aren't sure how long Sex Stars System published. It debuted in 1975. Also in 1975, or possibly 1976, a magazine called simply Stars System appeared. Stars System had a softer editorial approach and featured solidly mainstream cover celebs such as Jane Fonda and Romy Schneider. At some point it changed its name slightly to Star System and, thus rebranded, published at least as late as 1982, which seems to be longer than Sex Stars System was on the scene. The information online about these magazines is, as you can probably guess, a jumble, but we'll keep looking into it and maybe have something more concrete to report later. There's also a Star System celeb magazine around today, but it's Canadian and presumably unrelated. Many scans below, and we have a few more issues we'll post later.
Funny, when I ordered these I actually thought they'd give me a bit more privacy.
We haven't had Virginia Gordon around these parts since we posted a spectacular record sleeve starring her in 2014, so here she is today on a nice Technicolor lithograph entitled “Baubles and Beads” that dates from 1958. See the earlier image here.
I suggest closing the lid if you don't want me to spoil.
Virginia Mayo lounges in a crate in this promo shot made in 1953 during the filming of South Sea Woman, in which she starred with Burt Lancaster. What's she doing in a crate? We'll find out when we watch the movie.
It's best not to get a head of yourself.
American actress Virginia Leith had a perfectly respectable show business career, appearing in the thriller Violent Saturday and on hit television shows such as Baretta and Barnaby Jones, but what she'll always be remembered for is her turn as a decapitated head in the 1962 schlock sci-fi flick The Brain that Wouldn't Die. Have you seen that one? You really should check it out. It's a hoot. In the film Leith is beheaded in a car accident and her scientist fiancée just can't let go. Well, looking at the rest of Leith at top, now we see why. We don't have a date on the photo, but we're guessing it's from around 1955.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1981—Ronnie Biggs Rescued After Kidnapping
Fugitive thief Ronnie Biggs, a British citizen who was a member of the gang that pulled off the Great Train Robbery, is rescued by police in Barbados after being kidnapped. Biggs had been abducted a week earlier from a bar in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil by members of a British security firm. Upon release he was returned to Brazil and continued to be a fugitive from British justice.
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.
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