Happy Birthday, John Waters!

John Waters as William Castle and Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford on FX's FEUD

William Castle (John Waters) addressing the crowd at STRAIT-JACKET’s (1964) premiere as Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) listens on FEUD (2017) episode HAGSPLOITATION

I grew up in a John Waters household, so when I caught up with FEUD (2017), I was delighted to watch his cameo as shockmeister William Castle. My parents went to Waters’ movies, and my mom owns an ODODRAMA card gotten at a first run screening of POLYESTER (1981). Living in Massachusetts close enough to The Cape that Provincetown could be a day jaunt, she thinks she shopped in Dreamlander Divine‘s thrift shop, which he ran in his poor, pre-fame days. It was only a matter of time until we shared some of Waters’ movies together. I’ve now seen most of his films and read most of his books.

Which is how I know it was an honor for him to play Castle. Physically, the two men were very different. Waters has remained trim while Castle was heavier in comparison and thicker haired. FEUD show creator Ryan Murphy didn’t want Waters costumed to resemble Castle. No, fat suit as Waters said. Murphy was aware those in this know would delight in how meta it would be for Castle disciple Waters to appear as himself when portraying the other director.

If you haven’t read Castle’s memoir STEP RIGHT UP! I’M GOING TO SCARE THE PANTS OFF AMERICA, you need to. Waters wrote a loving and nostalgic introduction on how seeing Castle’s gimmicky movies as a kid inspired a love of cinema and the outrageous. There’s a joy in both directors’ works at defying convention to pursue their own visions. Keep on reading after the introduction, and you’ll learn a lot about B-movie making on shoestring budgets, including what it was like to work with Joan Crawford on STRAIT-JACKET (1964).

Happy birthday to John Waters, who doesn’t think he’s ever topped William Castle, but got to be him for a day! That must have been his best early birthday present.

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Book Review: The Ice Cream Blonde

The Ice Cream Blonde Book Cover Michelle Morgan Chicago Review Press Large

While Thelma Todd‘s death often overshadows her work, Michelle Morgan has written the biography the actress deserves. Any book about Thelma must mention her death and the mystery that surrounds it, but Morgan spends the majority of The Ice Cream Blonde discussing the slapstick comedienne’s life and career.

Thelma Todd and Charley Chase

Morgan researched her subject well. The book is filled with details whose sources are carefully listed in the notes and bibliography sections. She shows how a prim and proper New Englander originally intent on becoming a schoolteacher became “Hot Toddy” roughhousing with a veritable who’s who of silent and early talkie comedy. Her famous co-stars included the Marx BrothersCharley ChaseBuster Keaton, Harry LangdonJoe E. BrownWheeler and Woolsey, and Laurel and Hardy.

Zasu Pitts and Thelma Todd in Asleep in the Feet (1933)

Producer Hal Roach sought to make a female comedy short duo as popular as his Laurel and Hardy pairing. He first paired Thelma with ZaSu Pitts, and when Pitts left his studio, he replaced her with Patsy Kelly. While the shorts’ detractors call them derivative and uninspired, Thelma and her co-stars draw laughs in their roles, and the films’ plots, while sometimes bizarre like The Tin Man, put slapstick into female realms, seemingly to offer a woman’s take on this comedy form despite being written and directed by men.

Buster Keaton and Thelma Todd in Speak Easily (1932)

Even though Thelma wanted a break-out role to lead to feature starring work, she was more concerned with expanding her talent and roles and securing her future than the fame associated with stardom. She was never too proud to not take a pratfall or to recognize and respect everyone working on-set. She knew the names of those working behind the scenes because she chatted with them about their families. As a consequence, she was beloved wherever she worked, at Roach’s or on loan.

Thelma Todd and Patsy Kelly

Her generosity helped many a friend. When New York stage star Patsy Kelly wasn’t adapting to life on the West Coast or slapstick screen work, and her debts threatened to drown her, Thelma’s intervention prevented Patsy from returning east in defeat. When Patsy was fleeing California, Thelma became determined to save Patsy before the studio got word. Thelma hopped into her car and dragged Patsy off of her eastbound train. The two had an all-nighter, full of heart-to-hearts and advice. A lifelong friendship developed.

Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Café

When her big break didn’t seem to be coming, Thelma’s practical side made her plan for her post-screen future by becoming a businesswoman. She partnered with former lover Roland West and his wife Jewel Carmen to open Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Café. Initially Thelma was to provide her name and presence, while the Wests were to provide the financing and management, but Thelma became very hands on, learning to run most aspects of the business. She could be found hostessing and personally preparing food, and her presence attracted everyone from tourists to fellow film stars.

Roland West

Her business put her on the trajectory to tragedy. Soon after becoming partners with West, the two became romantically involved again, and Thelma moved into the café’s apartment in a room next to his, only separated by a sliding door. The pair’s relationship was volatile, and at least once resulted in physical violence. Her alleged mobster ex-husband Pat DiCicco had been physically abusive as well. The smart starlet was not so smart in her choice of men. The eatery’s success and perhaps secret on-site gambling of Hollywood stars attracted mob interest. Meanwhile Thelma started receiving anonymous blackmail threats in the mail. Whatever your theory about Thelma’s subsequent death in the café’s garage, these incidents provided possible motives for murder.

Newspaper Diagram of Thelma Todd's Death Scene

In dissecting the available evidence surrounding Thelma’s death and the subsequent inquests, Morgan carefully conveys which testimonies and pieces of evidence she finds credible and why. She reviews the theories relating to accidental death, suicide, and murder, and she favors one, but she doesn’t belittle those coming in with others. For instance, she asks if Thelma truly walked to the garage herself why was no mention made of the state of her hosiery? Thelma was wearing high-heeled sandals, and such a long walk in or not in non-protective footwear would have resulted in dirtiness and runs.

Thelma Todd's Shoes Worn at Death in 1935Don’t think Morgan’s fact-focused approached leads to a dry style, quite the contrary. While her style is non-sensationalistic, it is engaging and allows the personalities she describes to be experienced through her words, especially in the book’s concluding and haunting quote from the actress. Maybe Thelma truly had the last word. Always the planner, she had posted Christmas cards and presents early. Friends and family received them a few days after her death. Still trying to make others happy. Her true legacy.

Merry Christmas from Thelma Todd

Disclosure: I was provided a review copy by the book’s publisher, Chicago Review Press.

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A Movie Manifesta

Spellbound by Movies is a passion project. I fell in love with movies at a young age. As an only child I might have been more susceptible to their lure. I was making up my own stories already, and I grew up in a place rich with history, which meant listening to others’ stories. Seeing a movie on the big screen or on TV, I was able to suspend my disbelief and let the magic of the movies wash over me.

Millicent Library Fairhaven Mass

In a lot of ways, I feel lucky to have grown up when I did. My family are moviegoers, and they took me when I was too little to take myself or make my own film choices. My maternal grandfather loved country music, and he used to make up stories of knowing cowboys like John Wayne or belles like Mae West. I knew his stories were fabrications, but they were fun nonetheless.

John Wayne Portrait

Weekend TV was full of classic comedies like Laurel and Hardy and Abbott and Costello as well as creature and horror features from Universal and other studios. Black and white was simply another viewing option, not an impediment to enjoyment. Some of the comedies were talkies and some were silent save for their musical score. All were funny.

Laurel and Hardy Sssh

We got cable when I was in elementary school, and my options of movie choices expanded. Perhaps M was a little intense for an elementary school-aged child to watch by herself, it was disturbing, but I was blown away by how powerful a movie it was and how a balloon floating away could say so much about another child’s fate. Channels like AMC and later TCM gave me greater exposure to film classics.

M Balloon Floating Away

Then the home video explosion occurred and became affordable, and I could watch anything available to rent on VHS from the teen favorites of those who a little older than I was to horror, foreign, art house and more. I was old enough not to drive yet, but I could rent my own movies. I kept watching as VHS shifted to DVDs and as my friends and I got old enough to drive ourselves.

Colleen Moore Electric Car Synthetic Sin

When I started taking film classes at my university, I came to some realizations. I had a very good memory for films and their details compared to my peers. I could recall scenes in detail they couldn’t, and I had aural abilities that allowed me to recognize pieces of music quickly, like soundtrack music. I had a facility for talking about film that improved under instruction. I also developed a greater appreciation for silent film inspired by a classroom screening of The Wind.

Lillian Gish at Door The Wind

When I left school, I graduated with a renewed love of film. It later showed itself in the silent film nights I organized at Flywheel, where I served as a member of the arts collective for several years. It shows itself in my reading choices and book collection and in the art I have on my walls. It shows in my movie logging on Twitter, where I often record watching out-of-print movies on VHS secured by interlibrary loan by my husband, also a movie lover.

Musidora as Irma Vep Stows Away Medium

Even though I may offer more criticism of the medium now, it’s done with love and enthusiasm, never cynicism or nihilism. My goals are to discuss the medium and to connect with others. If anything more comes from the blog, fantastic! If not, it’s time well spent. Who wouldn’t want to be spellbound at least once in a while?

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Accents & Sally’s Diction Lessons from Radio Days (1987)

My husband told me he heard a young actress being interviewed who pronounces her Gs the same why I do. More specifically, she uses a hard G when saying words ending in -ing. That means walking would be pronounced as walk-ing-guh. The last syllable is more of a half-syllable and softer in the throat than that looks in print. I was disappointed he could not remember which actress. I wonder if she’s simply using a more theatrical pronunciation so her G isn’t lost like some people used to assume I did?

My pronunciation is a remnant of my former regional/ethnic accent that was mostly smoothed out by my childhood speech therapist. She helped me erase more than my lisp. Now when people hear I’m from Massachusetts, they remark I don’t sound like I’m from there, but they’re thinking of the Boston accent, not the Southeastern Massachusetts one I had. Massachusetts has regional and micro-regional accents. Mine pops out when I’m very tired or sometimes when speaking with my parents.

This all makes me think of scenes from one of my favorite movies, Woody Allen‘s Radio Days. In this love letter to Old Time Radio, Mia Farrow plays Sally White, a cigarette girl aiming for radio stardom, but first she must rid herself of her Bronx accent.

Farrow is winningly adorable as Sally. She makes us laugh at Sally’s efforts without losing our sympathy. Sally is the kind of role Judy Holliday excelled at and got typecast in–the cute cookie determined to improve herself or her lot in life. Farrow is a worthy successor in playing this type when playing against her type, and she masters two accents not normally her own–the Bronx and the Hollywood Patrician.

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