Friday, April 11, 2008

For Doug Holm

It has just come to my attention, through postings at Arbogast on Film and Green Cine Daily, that film scholar and journalist D.K. Holm is battling a form of esophageal cancer. Doug once did a very good turn for me, by writing a wonderful article about MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK (actually using the book as an excuse to prepare a remarkable overview of my life and crazy career) for Green Cine Daily. The author of books about Quentin Tarantino, Robert Crumb and independent film, he's a talented man and a class act, and I wish him a complete and comfortable-as-possible recovery. A group of concerned friends are organizing a fundraiser on his behalf, in his hometown of Portland, Oregon, to help defray some of his medical expenses. I can't be there, so I plan to send a check instead. If it's at all within your power to do so, I would encourage you to send some sort of contribution his way. Follow this link for more details.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Fred Lightner: Another Rondo Hatton?

I recently had the pleasure of seeing some episodes of a 1950s television series called FOLLOW THAT MAN, starring Ralph Bellamy as private eye Mike Barnett. In its original run, the show was called MAN AGAINST CRIME but it went into syndication as FOLLOW THAT MAN, under which title 28 different episodes are available on disc in seven volumes from Alpha Home Video. Starting in 1949, the first three seasons were broadcast live, and I don't know if any of these episodes survive; it went to film in 1952, the year its fourth season began.

The eighth episode of that fourth season, "Get Out of Town," I found especially interesting because it features a henchman character named Stanley, clearly modelled on the persona made popular by the late Rondo Hatton in various Universal horror and mystery programmers, including THE PEARL OF DEATH and HOUSE OF HORRORS. Hatton died with his last picture, 1946's THE BRUTE MAN, still awaiting release -- the victim of a bone-distorting pituitary disease called acromegaly, which had also been responsible for his distorted features.

"Get Out of Town" begins with Mike Barnett entering his apartment, only to be quickly overcome by a gigantic hand that chloroforms him.

When Barnett awakens, he has been blindfolded -- and the monstrous hand responsible for subduing him occupies the foreground of the shot, flexing its fingers eagerly. The partner of this ominous, subhuman figure -- the fellow holding the gun -- explains to Barnett that a criminal of considerable wealth and influence wants him to get out of town for a year, and offers him a lot of money to high-tail it to Mexico.

When Barnett questions the arrangement, the ogre walks around the sofa and offers some encouragement by using his massive hand to crumple the shoulder of his sportcoat. As often happened with Rondo Hatton's characters, this character of the henchman named "Stanley" is kept under wraps a bit longer, which adds to the weight of his presence, but his face is eventually shown as he, his partner Sammy, and the requisite femme fatale escort Barnett to the airport. Here they are, seeing him off.

Looking at the actor on the right, I surmised right away that he, like Rondo Hatton, was very probably a victim of acromegaly. The end credits listed the actor as Fred Lightner, and I promptly looked him up on the IMDb to see if he left behind any other outstanding credits. His IMDb page, which does not mention the FOLLOW THAT MAN episode, lists only four other screen credits, ranging from a 1935 Western to a supporting role in 1948's THE BABE RUTH STORY. Legend has it that Rondo Hatton was a handsome college football star until wartime exposure to mustard gas prompted his disfiguring disease, so I began wondering if this might also have been the fate of Fred Lightner, whose long absence from films coincides with the war years. I also became curious about whether he had looked conspicuously different in his earliest pictures.

In a thread on the Classic Horror Film Boards, where I initiated this topic for discussion, "Doctor Kiss" posted a not-very-high-quality shot of Lightner and William Bendix together in THE BABE RUTH STORY in which he looks -- even at that late date -- like a completely different man. (I suppose I should allow for the possibility that it is.) As far as I know, there are no comparable before-and-after shots of Rondo Hatton to illustrate how quickly and lethally acromegaly derailed his once-handsome features; but if the actor in the BABE RUTH STORY still is indeed Fred Lightner, to compare the shots of taken of him in 1948 to these frame grabs from a 1952 production is a fairly sobering exercise.

No information about the later life of Fred Lightner is yet available, but it seems likely from these photos that he would not have had much longer to live. The point is not whether Rondo Hatton and Fred Lightner really were exposed to mustard gas, or if they -- like many others -- became acromegalic through some other internal process. The real point is that, until now, Rondo Hatton has always been a singular case study among actors, but this sighting of Fred Lightner proves that at least one other, authentically disfigured actor followed in his footsteps to play the sort of character he made infamous.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Heston on Making Movies

Charlton Heston arrives at a Northern Kentucky bookstore to sign copies of "In the Arena" -- the day I met him in 1995 -- photograph by Donna Lucas.

"Making movies is very hard work, and it's not fun... I eat my work, I drink it, and breathe it -- even dream it at night. But it's supposed to be fun for you, not us. Or scary, or inspiring, or even, once in a hundred times, profound.

"There are shining times, surely -- sitting [on] a good horse at five in the morning, waiting for the first shooting light in Montana, or Mexico, or the Spanish Guadarramas. Struggling with a scene all morning, and arguing through lunch about it, and then suddenly finding the way in, like opening a locked door. Exploring Shakespeare with a camera. Yes, there are wonderful things in it, my whole life, for instance. But it counts too much to be 'fun,' and if you can't understand that, I can't explain it to you."

-- Charlton Heston, IN THE ARENA (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster), pp. 141-142. Copyright (c) 1995 by Agamemnon Films, all rights reserved.

Charlton Heston: Larger Than Life

Some important news from a press release received today:

Turner Classic Movies (TCM) will honor the life and career of legendary actor Charlton Heston, who died Sunday at the age of 84. This Friday, April 11, the network will present a 15-hour marathon of memorable Heston performances, including his Oscar®-winning role in Ben-Hur (1959). Also featured will be two opportunities to watch an in-depth conversation between Heston and TCM host Robert Osborne in the TCM original special Private Screenings: Charlton Heston.

“Charlton Heston was a towering man both in person and on screen,” said Osborne. “He was also one of the nicest, most courteous gentlemen I ever met. He will forever stand tall among those rare few we know as genuine Movie Stars.”

The following is a complete schedule of TCM’s April 11 tribute to Charlton Heston:

2:30 p.m. Private Screenings: Charlton Heston (hour-long career interview)
3:30 p.m. THE BUCCANEER (1958) – co-starring Yul Brynner and Claire Bloom.
5:30 p.m. THE HAWAIIANS (1970) – co-starring Geraldine Chaplin and John Philip Law.
8 p.m. Private Screenings: Charlton Heston (hour-long career interview)
9 p.m. BEN-HUR (1959) – co-starring Jack Hawkins and Stephen Boyd.
1 a.m. KHARTOUM (1966) – co-starring Lawrence Olivier and Richard Johnson.
3:30 a.m. MAJOR DUNDEE (1965, pictured) – co-starring Richard Harris, Jim Hutton and James Coburn.
I had the good fortune to meet Mr. Heston briefly back in 1995, when he came to a northern Kentucky bookstore to sign copies of his then-new autobiography IN THE ARENA. Some of his obits are claiming he was 6' 2," but I'm 6' 2" and I remember being surprised by how much smaller in stature he was than I expected; nevertheless, he had the aura of a colossus. He was my mother's favorite actor -- she called him "Charleston Heston" -- and Donna and I took her to the bookstore to meet him. Everyone on queue was cautioned to have their book open to the title page for signing, not to ask for other items to be signed (however, an entire table of 8x10 photos of Heston on various film sets, taken by his wife Lydia, were available to be ordered and could be sent to you signed and inscribed), and not to engage him in too much talk, so that everyone could be accomodated.
When we reached his signing table, my mother pushed her book across the table to be signed... and, when he finished signing, she humbly asked, "Could I just touch you?" With a warm chuckle, he said "Certainly, madam!", put down his pen, and took both her hands in his. For my part, I asked him if there was going to be a second volume of his journals, to follow the first such collection called AN ACTOR'S LIFE: JOURNALS 1956-1976, which I had very much enjoyed. To this, he replied confidently, "Yes," saying that IN THE ARENA was not intended to take the place of that follow-up volume. In parting, I thanked him for helping Orson Welles to find work and moved on, but he called after me, "I'm very proud of that." "Rightly so," I called back.

I still have my copy of IN THE ARENA -- signed with a flourish that looks downright presidential. Like many, I was opposed to most of Mr. Heston's politics (it shouldn't be overlooked that he was an important civil rights crusader in the 1950s and '60s), but I was greatly disappointed by the way he was treated over the years by people, like Michael Moore, who share views closer to my own. I liked him -- as an actor, as an activist (for speaking out on behalf of what he believed in), for the way he used his clout to get TOUCH OF EVIL made and MAJOR DUNDEE finished; he was also a very good writer. I also liked him for the way he handled my mother.
Thirteen years after that meeting, the second volume of AN ACTOR'S LIFE still hasn't appeared, but perhaps it will now.
Postscript: For some of the best eulogistic writing about Charlton Heston that I've found online, see Sam Umland's essay on his 60x50 blog. He makes a strong case for Heston as the actor who not only best exemplified the Epic but also the Apocalypse.