B-movie actor generates A-list headlines for all the wrong reasons.
Show business careers go off the rails for a wide array of reasons—lack of talent, lack of audience appeal, substance abuse, and a predilection for general mayhem all come to mind. Hollywood actor Tom Neal fits legendarily into the last category. From his debut in 1938 through 1951 he logged more than seventy film appearances. That's incredible output by any measure. Most of his roles were in b-movies, but there were some notable parts mixed in. His career highlights included Another Thin Man, the film noir Detour, and Crime, Inc.
Neal caused minor scandals early in his career, but he graduated to the majors beginning in early 1951, when he met tempestuous actress Barbara Payton and the two began dating. Payton had announced her engagement the previous year to debonair leading man Franchot Tone, but her ideas about commitment weren't of the standard variety. She was still married to an Air Force Captain named John Payton while dating Tone, and had allegedly slept with Gary Cooper and Steve Cochran while working with them on the 1950 western Dallas. When Neal met her, she kicked Tone to the curb and announced she and Neal would be marrying. But Payton was fickle, to say the least, and ended up dropping Neal and getting re-engaged to Tone. All this while still married to her Air Force guy.
One thing Hollywood people can count on is crossing paths with their colleagues at one point or another—especially if they're dating the same woman. When Neal crossed paths with Tone and Payton in September 1951 at her apartment, he intended to punish the man who had won Payton's hand. Everyone in Hollywood knew Neal had been an amateur boxer. Maybe the qualifier “amateur” gave Tone excessive confidence. Maybe he didn't know that Neal, who you see below with barbells overhead and a tube sock in his shorts, had accumulated a 31-3record in the ring. Maybe Tone slipped on a dollop of Beluga caviar. Payton said Tone simply had no choice about fighting because Neal attacked him. Whatever the reason, Neal floored Tone with his first punch, and continued to beat him afterward, delivering cheek and nose fractures. Tone lay in an eighteen hour coma in the hospital. Ironically, that was the day Payton's divorce had come through. 1951 had been a pretty good year for Neal up to that point. But from then onward he was Hollywood persona non grata. He'd had more roles in ’51 than he would the entire rest of his career. We wouldn't go so far as saying that means Tone had the last laugh, since it would have been a extraordinarily painful laugh, considering the injuries and cosmetic surgery that followed. But okay, in that karmic way that's never fully satisfying, Tone at least must have felt a bit of Schadenfreude. Neal was blacklisted, and Payton was his. The good times didn't last. Hesoon discovered that Payton—wait for it—had never stopped seeing Neal, including while Tone was in the hospital with a broken face. So there went that marriage. It seemed as if Neal had unequivocally won Payton's affections after all, and she does look happy in the 1952 photo above, but it's probably no surprise to learn that the two parted ways after a few tumultuous years, some broken windows, and at least one police intervention. Payton went on to have truly epic problems that would put a South American novela to shame. Neal nursed his severely damaged career along, landing only occasional minor parts, and by the time the ’60s rolled around couldn't beg, barter, or buy a role. He had been married for a few years during the late ’50s, and in 1960 he married again, to a receptionist named Gale (sometimes Gail) Bennett, who you see below. In April 1965 police were summoned to Neal's home in Palm Springs where they found Bennett dead. She had been shot through the back of the head with .45 calibre pistol, the slug entering her skull behind her right ear and ending up in a sofa cushion. Neal wasn't on the premises when police arrived, but was soon arrested, and claimed the shooting had been an accident, the result of a struggle over the gun after his wife pulled it on him.
Accounts of the killing vary, as they always do. In some, Neal shot Bennett as she was taking a nap. In others, they argued. We even found one that said Neal claimed the accident occurred while he and Bennett were making love. At trial Neal's defense attorney claimed a mystery man had pulled the trigger. We were struck, however, when we found that Bennett had secretly filed for divorce, and in the filing specifically mentioned Neal threatening her with a .45 automatic. If that detail struck us, it certainly must have made an impact on the jury. In the end, after a sensational trial, the dozen jurors convicted Neal of involuntary manslaughter.
Neal spent only six years behind bars before being paroled. That's a pretty sweet deal for what many suspected was a clearcut case of premeditated murder. Also, note that during the dust-up with Tone, one witness said Neal threw more than thirty punches after Tone was down. That could be construed as attempted murder, were you inclined to put a label on it, and if that was the plan it almost worked. Doctors thought for a while Tone would never awaken. Neal was a rough and tumble fellow, there's little doubt. But looks and a bit of charm will carry you a long way in life. Eventually, though, even those can run dry. Neal died eight months after his release from prison, aged fifty-eight, of heart failure, looking a shell of his former self.
Sparks fly when Hollywood bigshots tangle.
The above photo, which was made today in 1952, shows Los Angeles film producer Walter Wanger entering the L.A. Hall of Justice. Wanger was one side of a Hollywood love triangle, and perpetrator of one of Tinseltown's most storied crimes. He had learned that his wife, actress Joan Bennett, was cheating on him with her agent Jennings Lang. Wanger decided to deal with the issue by trying to shoot Lang in his wanger. Stories vary concerning whether he actually managed to Jake Barnes the guy, but most reputable sources say he missed his target and instead hit Lang in the thigh, groin, or both, depending on which account you read. That was in December 1951. Wanger would be arrested for assault with intent to commit murder.
In the photos below, also from today 1952, you see Wanger inside the courthouse preparing to answer for those charges. At his side is Hollywood superlawyer Jerry Giesler. You'd think even a superlawyer would have a difficult task defending a client who tried to to eunuch a guy, but this was Giesler. Beating impossible odds was his calling card. He opted for the temporary insanity defense, and thanks to him, Wanger drew a mere four months at a country club jail called Castaic Honor Farm—fitting for an inmate who claimed to be defending his honor. There Wanger worked in the sun planting cabbages and probably pondered what had gone wrong in his marriage leading up to that fateful 1951 shooting. Some accounts claim Wanger merely suspected Bennett of cheating, but others claim convincingly that Wanger knew it for a fact, because he'd hired a detective who found that the lovebirds had met in New Orleans, the Caribbean, and in a Beverly Hills apartment owned by one of Wanger’s friends, the agent Jay Kanter. Despite his wife's transgressions, Wanger must have found some form of peace out there under the Castaic sun, because he remained married to Bennett for fourteen more years. The wounded Lang recovered fully, and presumably used his wanger on safer partners. A few years after his near miss he married and stayed married until he died. As for Bennett, her career declined sharply, and she believed it was because of the shooting. She felt she had been blacklisted. She once said, “I might as well have pulled the trigger myself.”
Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night can stay her from the swift completion of her appointed seduction.
Above is a trolley card for the classic Lana Turner/John Garfield film noir The Postman Always Rings Twice, which according to the text, opened at the Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles today in 1946. What's a trolley card? Pretty much self-explanatory, that. But you don't see many surviving examples, so this is a real treasure. The opening date represents new info. All the websites we checked said the movie opened in L.A. May 9. Maybe the managers of the Egyptian had connections at MGM. Awesome connections, we guess, to have helped them beat the rest of town by two full days. With that kind of juice, it's safe to assume they only had to ring once at the studio gates. We worked in the L.A. film industry. Relationships are everything. Or maybe the movie actually opened today, and the internet is wrong. Wouldn't be the first time. Not that we're trying to sound superior. We've made errors more than once. Interestingly, we were able to locate a vintage photo of the Egyptian with its marquee advertising Postman. It's a great movie. Nobody needs us to tell them that, but we did anyway, at this link.
So, I'm off to that crucial business meeting with— Wow, that thing's transparent, isn't it? Well, money can wait.
Above, a beautiful Bob Abbett cover for William Campbell Gault's Sweet Wild Wench, published by Crest Books in 1959. Abbett used a still of Brigitte Bardot from the 1958 film En cas de malheur as his inspiration. It certainly worked on us—we wanted to read this entirely because of the cover art. The story deals with a promiscuous private eye named Joe Puma who's hired to look into the activities of a Los Angeles cult, but soon finds himself tangled up in two murders, multiple lovers, and various pulp fiction tropes, which his main character actually refers to in his interior monologues as being like “something out of the pulps.” We appreciated the meta touch, the narrative has a nice L.A. feel, and there's a pretty good fight scene about three quarters of the way through, but the long and winding mystery resolves with a fizzle. Two Gaults down, two meh results. We'll dutifully try another.
Rudy Ray Moore explodes onto the film scene and people can't believe their eyes.
We said a while back after watching the blaxploitation flick The Human Tornado that we'd check out its progenitor Dolemite, and though it's taken years and a quarantine, we've finally arrived where we said we would. The premise of Dolemite is simply that the titular character is released from prison in order to prove his innocence of the charges that landed him inside for, so far, two years of a twenty year sentence. The motivation behind this for authorities is that crime has shot through the roof in Dolemite's Los Angeles neighborhood. If he can fix the problem he can earn a pardom. Sounds fine, he says, plus he plans to settle some old scores along the way.
Going into this you have to accept that man-boobed fat-ass Rudy Ray Moore is going to play an infinitely dangerous, athletically gifted, sexually irresistible urban crusader. In addition you have to accept that the low budget nature of the production means some of the acting will be face-palmingly atrocious. What you have left, then, after making concessions, is style, commentary, and comedy. Moore provides plenty of the first with his pimplike persona and occasional forays into rhyming slang, and commentary is built into the blaxploitation genre, but the comedy is dependent on how near to a sober state you are. We were far too near at first, less so later, and the film improved.
Some cinephiles will label you a cultural philistine if you dare to dislike Dolemite. They're wrong. Except for the musical numbers the movie is empirically terrible. Truly appreciating it may depend on how deeply you can immerse yourself into a contemporaneous mindframe where what you're seeing is unlike anything you've seen before (which is certainly how audiences of the era must have felt), and therefore impresses you with its freshness and grit. If you can do that, the microphones dangling in shots and bit players who struggle to remember their lines will fade, and instead Dolemite might impress you as a landmark entry in the blaxploitation canon, worth watching for that reason alone.
Then again it might not, because there are at least two-dozen better entries, and as a matter of respect for the genre that fact has to be admitted, no matter how many hipster reviewers with scraggly neckbeards tell you Dolemite is an overlooked gold nugget. It is what it is—a lower tier, lowest budget indie flick with a few legit laughs, such as when a cop sees that Dolemite has literally karate-clawed a guy's mid-section open, says, impressed, “God damn, Dolemite,” and administers a double-tap coup de grâce. But Moore would prove those flashes were luck, not skill, when he lensed the crushingly bad sequel a year later. Dolemite premiered in the U.S. today in 1975.
Sometimes you simply have to look.
You know you shouldn't look at them. You try to direct your gaze where it belongs—at the band, or at the Champagne pyramid, or maybe at the roasted baby pig platter. You see people staring and know if you do too they'll all catch you. But the effort of not looking becomes a Sisyphean task. Lateral gravity becomes your enemy. Your eyes keep getting puuuuulled in that direction and you keep stopping them, just barely, by firing the reverse thrusters full power. But then, after many slow mintues of this torture, you figure, well screw this, maybe one day the planet will be in lockdown and this opportunity won't even exist. So you decide to take a really good look, just one, to get it out of the way, because if you don't you'll be fighting it all night. Plus she wants them to be looked at. Clearly. So you look—and flash! Someone takes a photo and your glance is immortalized as the evil side-eye of all time.
That moment happened April 12, 1957, as Sophia Loren attended a glittering Paramount Pictures dinner where she was the guest of honor. It was held at Romanoff's in Beverly Hills, a chic and popular restaurant, and Mansfield—being Mansfield—arrived last and sucked up the oxygen in the room like a magnesium fire. Every camera in the joint was following her—and by extension Loren, because the seating chart had placed them adjacent. Loren was a big star, but stars sometimes get trapped in other stars' orbits. Loren and Mansfield got locked into the same space-time continuum, eyes moved to boobs, and the infamous photo was shot. The images of the encounter were all in black and white. What you see above is a colorization, a pretty nice one, except the retoucher didn't do their homework. Mansfield's dress was pink that night. She nearly always wore pink. It was her favorite color. Even her house was pink. The colorization below gets the dress right, and this second angle shows just how much skin Mansfield was revealing, which gives a clearer indication why Loren had to look. Mansfield's nipples were coming out. They had fishhooked Loren's eyes. She couldn't not look. Not not doing something is an ethical conundrum we've discussed before, and it's baffled some of the greatest minds of all time. As you might imagine, Loren hates the shot. Sometimes fans ask her to autograph it and she says she always refuses. The dinner that night was intended to welcome her to Hollywood. Well, she was welcomed in more ways than one. Mansfield showed her a surefire method for playing the celebrity game, by always making a big entrance—even if it meant almost making a big exit from her dress.
L.A. manhunt ends not with a bang, but with a whimper.
You see here three photos of Albert Schier, who committed suicide in Los Angeles today in 1954 by running a hose from the tailpipe of his car to its window and inhaling carbon monoxide fumes. What was bothering him? Hard to say, but earlier in the day he had stabbed an LAPD cop seven times and fled, so he probably wasn't going to live much longer anyway, considering he'd left his wallet in the cop's possession and every uniform in L.A. was searching for him and his car. We know what you're thinking. Maybe they got to him and made it look like murder. But we don't think cops would bother to run a hose from a tailpipe, nor to scratch a message in the dashboard with a knife. The message said: “Mom, life isn't worth the struggle.”
Hmph. She didn't crumble to dust. Guess you weren't a vampire after all. Sorry, honey.
You may remember we started on a set of Richard Matheson books several months ago, long before we were thinking about COVID-19, and I Am Legend was always third on the list. There are so many books and stories about humanity being wiped out by flus and viruses. We thought this was one of them. We don't know why, but that was our assumption. The book, though, is actually about vampires. The novel first appeared in 1954, and the Corgi Books edition you see here was published in 1960. The story follows the day-to-day—and night-to-night—existence of man named Robert Neville who lives in a Los Angeles house, from which he kills vampires and forages for food by sunlight, but to which he must retreat every sunset lest he be consumed by rampaging bloodsuckers. He might be the last man on Earth, but how can he know? He's basically tethered to his house as far as a tank of gas can carry him—half to go someplace, half to get back. In that radius he's seen nothing but desolation and vampires.
Most of the narrative deals with him trying to decipher vampire biology as a way to cure or kill them. Everything is covered, from why they hate crosses to why wooden stakes kill them, and the idea of a virus is actually touched upon as a cause of their condition, which is perhaps where we got our mistaken ideas about the book. The science is interesting, but the point is terror and isolation, as the main character's survival is complicated by his occasional bouts of carelessness and despair. Setting aside the usual 1950s social attitudes that don't strike harmonious chords today, the book is effective, and, in parts, legitimately scary. The concept resulted in four film adaptations—1964's The Last Man on Earth, 1971's The Omega Man, and 2007's I Am Legend and I Am Omega. When a book is that kind of cinematic gold mine, you expect it to be good, and it is. We'd even call it a horror monument.
1960 jazz novel soars to great heights.
Told over a span of years wrapped around World War II, Lou Cameron's novel Angel's Flight appeared in 1960 and was set in the mid-century jazz scene. Cameron writes in a beat style, imbues his prose with a powerful sense of place, fills it with factual anecdotes, colorful characters, and wild slang, ultimately weaving a sprawling tale of rags to riches, hope and struggle, and one man's determination to maintain his integrity in a cutthroat world.
We realized we were reading something really good during a scene a quarter of the way through in which the main character, Ben, is chatting with his nemesis Johnny in the parking lot of a movie studio. Johnny is trying to get Ben to understand something elemental about how to achieve success. Ben isn't getting it. Johnny says, “Watch this. You'll learn something.” He grabs Ben's panama hat from his head and sails it away.
Ben: “Hey, that cost me eight bucks!”
The wind takes the hat, and it skips and rolls away. But a nearby man chases it down, and, huffing and puffing, eagerly returns it to Ben. After the man leaves, Johnny explains that the good samaritan was no random guy, but was the production chief, one of the top guys at the studio. Yet despite his position, he chased the hat. “He'd have done that for any grip on the goddamn lot,” Johnny says.
Ben: “So he's democratic.”
“You still don't dig me? Christ, you're thick!”
Johnny goes on to explain that the studio exec chased the hat because it was a reflex, just like Pavlov's dog. And if you understand people's reflexes you can control them. “They don't think," he says. "They react. Show them a picture of a blind girl with a puppy and they get lumps in their throats. Wave a flag and they stand. Show them a picture of Hitler and they hiss. Are you getting the picture? Do you dig what I'm saying?”
But no, Ben doesn't get it. He is thick. And his reply almost put us on the floor laughing:
“All I dig, you bastard, is that you used my hat! Next time gives a fat lip!”
It's a funny, insightful, cleverly conceived scene, and from that point forward we settled in for what we knew would be an amazing ride. Another funny exchange involves Ben's roommate and occasional sex partner Dorothy, who works as a nude art model and often can't be bothered to wear clothes around the apartment. Note: in the dialogue below, “Read from a map,” is slang for reading sheet music.
I asked Dorothy if she knew a cat who could read from a map. She thought prettily for a moment and said, “There's my husband, Tom. He used to play cello.”
"Don't you know anybody but your husband? He's liable to take a dim view of life as he finds it on the Sunset Strip.”
“Oh, Tom won't mind. He's very progressive.”
“He'd have to be. Is there anybody you haven't slept with who reads music? For that matter, is there anybody you haven't slept with?”
That's funny stuff. Ben had no idea until that moment Dorothy was even married. But he really needs someone who can read music, so his desperation causes him—save for a touch of exasperation—to ignore Dorothy's surprising revelation and all its strange implications, which makes the scene all the funnier.
But Angel's Flight isn't a comedy. It's a gritty tale about a jazz musician trying to make it in L.A., and mixed into the narrative is crime, betrayal, and drugs, along with harsh racial and homophobic language. But it also features many ethnic and gay characters in actual three-dimensional speaking roles, rather than as exotic ornaments. The white characters aren't spared racial insults either. In the end, each reader needs to decide whether to endure rough content, or say no to a significant piece of vintage literature.
Those who forge ahead will read a memorable story. They'll learn about the origins of jazz and the mechanisms of the music industry, from forming bands, to gigging, to pressing records, to earning radio play. They'll also discover that the title Angel's Flight is metaphorical on multiple levels. The villain is Johnny Angel, bi-sexual hustler extraordinaire. The song that secures his fame is called “Angel's Flight.” And of course the title predicts his meteoric rise in the music industry.
But most importantly, the book's title also references the vintage Angels Flight funicular in downtown Los Angeles. Ben has never been on it. He wonders what's at the top. He rides it one night and finds that at the end of the line there's nothing. Just a dark street. And lonely ambition. This is a highly recommended book. The Gold Medal edition, which you see above, has Mitchell Hooks cover art.
Sondra Currie commits police banality.
The badass on the above promo poster is the prolific and still-working U.S. actress Sondra Currie, whose credits include everything from 1970's Rio Lobo to 2009's The Hangover. Policewomen is actually about just one policewoman with the fun character name Lacy Bond. The action starts with a mass escape at L.A.'s women's jail, which Lacy almost foils singlehandedly using her superior martial arts skills. But two convicts get away, one of whom is Jeannie Bell—the reason we watched this flick in the first place.
After the jailbreak intro come the opening credits, and the first image you see is this:
Which is a pretty nice visual. But lest you think this is a movie dealing solely with serious police work, the next images you see are these:
And finally these:
So viewers know going in this is full spectrum ’70s schlock. Lacy is tapped for a dangerous undercover assignment taking down a gang of female drug smugglers. It shouldn't be too difficult. The gang mainly lounges around an L.A. suburb in bikinis and hot pants. Their leader is a septuagenarian career criminal looking for one more big score before cruising into her sunset years. The cops have other ideas, and Lacy infiltrates the group in unlikely fashion in order to take them down from within.
Policewomen actually has a couple of twists we considered to be surprising for a low budget movie, but budget is the crux of it—higher production values might have yielded a passable effort, but there weren't, and it isn't. And sad to say, the movie mostly fails to cross the line into entertainingly bad—except for a rather amusing falling dummy shot—and instead remains a joyless slog for its entire length. Since the field of ’70s girl gang movies is so crowded, there's no way we can recommend this botched entry. But before we sign off, here's a screenshot of Jeannie Bell, whose afro reaches truly epic proportions:
Even with a top heavy hairdo and dead leaves stuck in her curls, Bell looks smashing. She can't act. She and everyone else in the movie seem as if they're searching for their lines on an optometrist's eye chart, but even so, there's nothing we've seen of Bell that does anything but encourage us to see even more. Check out a promo image of this eternal goddess here. Policewomen premiered today in 1974.
Is it weird that with all these women around the only thing that truly turns me on is pumping iron?
If only weight training could fix—*sob*—this hideous mug of mine.
Central I'm issuing a POLO alert for the Los Angeles metro area. Repeat—be on the look-out for a missing Polo shirt. Or any shirt from Ralph Lauren.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1939—Adams Completes Around-the-World Air Journey
American Clara Adams becomes the first woman passenger to complete an around-the-world air journey. Her voyage began and ended in New York City, with stops in Lisbon, Marseilles, Leipzig, Athens, Basra, Jodhpur, Rangoon, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Wake Island, Honolulu, and San Francisco.
1955—Nobel Prize Winners Unite Against Nukes
Eighteen Nobel laureates sign the Mainau Declaration against nuclear weapons, which reads in part: We think it is a delusion if governments believe that they can avoid war for a long time through the fear of [nuclear] weapons. Fear and tension have often engendered wars. Similarly it seems to us a delusion to believe that small conflicts could in the future always be decided by traditional weapons. In extreme danger no nation will deny itself the use of any weapon that scientific technology can produce.
1997—Versace Murdered in Miami
Italian fashion designer Gianni Versace is shot dead on the steps of his Miami mansion as he returns from breakfast at a cafe. His killer is Andrew Cunanan, a man who had already murdered four other people across the country and was the focus of an FBI manhunt. The FBI never caught Cunanan—instead he committed suicide on the houseboat where he was living.
1921—Sacco & Vanzetti Convicted
Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti are convicted in Dedham, Massachusetts of killing their shoe company's paymaster. Even at the time there are serious questions about their guilt, and whether they are being railroaded because of their Italian ethnicity and anarchist political beliefs.
1933—Eugenics Becomes Official German Policy
Adolf Hitler signs the Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring, and Germany begins sterilizing those they believe carry hereditary illnesses, and those they consider impure. By the end of WWII more than 400,000 are sterilized, including criminals, alcoholics, the mentally ill, Jews, and people of mixed German-African heritage.
1955—Ruth Ellis Executed
Former model Ruth Ellis is hanged at Holloway Prison in London for the murder of her lover, British race car driver David Blakely. She is the last woman executed in the United Kingdom.
1966—Richard Speck Rampage
breaks into a Chicago townhouse where he systematically rapes and kills eight student nurses. The only survivor hides under a bed the entire night.
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